But if I had one more vote to cast this year, and make it stick wherever I wanted, I’d vote for a judge in Cleveland.
Ohio, not Georgia.
I don’t know the judge’s name, or if the judge was up for re-election. I don’t even know if the judge is a man or a woman. All I know is what this judge ruled, and my immense satisfaction because of it.
Last Monday, a Cleveland Municipal Court judge sentenced 32-year-old Shena Hardin to stand at an intersection for two days this week, an hour each day, while wearing a sign saying, “Only an idiot drives on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus.”
Each day, a school bus would stop on East 38th Street to pick up a wheelchair-bound student. Ms. Hardin apparently didn’t feel like stopping to wait on the bus. So on more than one occasion, witnesses say, she jumped the curb with her Jeep SUV.
I can sympathize a bit with Ms. Hardin – but only because if I were in east Cleveland, and everything I’ve heard about it is true, I wouldn’t want to stop, either.
But my sympathy stops there – and if Ms. Hardin had stopped there, she wouldn’t be preparing to wear an “idiot” sign this week.
Which brings us to shame.
Where did it go?
Shame has been a corrective force in pretty much any civilization. Shame, for example, is what keeps your clothes on when you walk out of the house. (And you thought it was buttons or zippers.)
Not so much now, though. Remember when it was embarrassing to pull down someone’s pants to reveal their underwear? Now teens are deliberately wearing sagging pants to reveal their underwear as a fashion statement.
Shame, like salt, is good in small doses, but can be used to unhealthy excess if you pour it on. You needn’t look further than any country in which women are legislated to wear head-to-toe burqas.
The trick – with shame and salt – is using just the right amount.
I think Putnam County, Fla., Judge Peter Miller does. Sadly, he is retiring. He chose not to run in this year’s election. In his time on the bench, he has sentenced hundreds of shoplifters to carry signs in public as a standard punishment.
From an Associated Press story about Miller in 2007: “The company that administers Putnam County’s probation system says that only three of Miller’s sign carriers have repeated their offense.”
Added Assistant Public Defender Mack Brunton: “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that this is his way to encourage them not to do it again. It seems to work fairly well.”
The jury’s still out on whether this method works well with animals.
Did you know there’s an Internet trend called “dog shaming?” It works like this: Say your dog did something bad, such as getting into the trash or snuffling through the cat’s litter box or hot-wiring your car. You hand-letter a sign (“I tried to steal my master’s Corolla”), hang it around your dog’s neck, take a picture of the offending animal and post it on the Internet.
Some people who tend to overthink these things believe this constitutes animal cruelty. It’s not. It’s funny. Dog-owner conflicts, no matter how large, almost always are quickly forgiven. Also, the overwhelming majority of dogs can’t read.
Now, parents shaming children? Way different story. I’m not a fan of publicly humiliating kids. If my kids aren’t behaving, I can get my point across without screaming at them in the middle of a restaurant or a supermarket. But all you have to do is go to the mall on a Saturday and wait long enough to see firsthand that other parents feel differently.
In 2005, an Oklahoma City woman put her 14-year-old daughter at a busy intersection wearing this sign: “I don’t do my homework and I act up in school, so my parents are preparing me for my future. Will work for food.”
Wouldn’t that be emotionally damaging?
Extremely, said Donald Wertlieb, a professor of child development at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University.
“The trick is to catch them being good,” he told the AP at the time. “It sounds like this mother has not had a chance to catch her child being good, or is so upset over seeing her be bad, that’s where the focus is.”
A few months ago, a dad in North Carolina became the hero of tough-love parents everywhere. You remember him. He was the guy with the 15-year-old daughter who complained in a long Facebook posting about all the chores she had to do and generally how oppressive her parents were. Typical teen gripes.
What did the dad do? He posted a YouTube video, for all his daughter’s friends to see, explaining why he parented the way he did.
Then – substituting a shovelful of salt for a pinch – he produced a .45-caliber automatic pistol and fired nine shots into his daughter’s laptop computer.
People around the world lauded this as a new, brilliant pinnacle of shaming.
But Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum got it closer to right. The episode actually helped signal the end of shame.
“Tommy Jordan wasn’t just angry with his daughter. He was embarrassed by her (and for her) in a way that, until recently, parents simply didn’t have the opportunity to be embarrassed,” Daum explained. “That’s because he is among the first generations of parents to raise kids who don’t vent about their parents by writing in a diary or yakking on the phone or carrying on at the school bus stop – but by posting their grievances online.”
The way kids communicate online today, the dumbest stuff they spout off are out-of-sight, out-of-mind sometimes in mere seconds.
“That’s why I suspect it wasn’t Hannah’s brattiness or disrespect that drove Tommy to shoot the laptop,” Daum wrote. “It was his perhaps unconscious awareness of an unbridgeable gap between him and his daughter, the gap between knowing what it means to be publicly humiliated and belonging to a cohort for whom humility is an increasingly arcane concept.”
That cohort apparently has grown to include Cleveland’s “idiot” who drives on the sidewalk.
Look, shame is part of the world’s cultural checks and balances. If you want a civilized society, you’ve got to have at least a little bit of shame.
Do you really want to imagine the alternative?